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Ionica Smeets
Professor of Science communication, University of Leiden, 

This study will change your life – health news in the media

Results from health research are regularly exaggerated in the media. For instance, a newspaper recently reported ‘Creative person has a lower risk of getting Parkinson’s disease’, while the original research paper claimed that ‘Artistic occupations are associated with a reduced risk of Parkinson’s disease.’ The correlation from the study is presented in the media as a causal relation, as if becoming a painter will protect you against Parkinson’s disease.

For many people the general media form an important source of health information and misrepresentations of medical research can have serious consequences. In our paper we track how research is translated from scientific publications to news articles via press releases. We focus on the exaggeration of causal relations.

Methods

We collected press releases on biomedical research, published by 15 Dutch universities and university medical centers in 2015, their associated peer reviewed research papers and associated news articles. Two independent coders did a quantitative content analysis on these materials.

Results

We found that 20% of press releases and 29% of news articles contain exaggerated causal claims. So we see that a lot of the exaggeration happens on the academic side and not just in the journalists work. Furthermore, there was a strong correlation between exaggeration in press releases and news articles. When the press releases contained an exaggeration of a causal claim, 92% of associated news articles was exaggerated as well. On the other hand: when the causal claim in press releases was correct, so were those in 94% of the news articles. These results are in line with previous British studies.

We discuss the implications of our work and how science communication via press releases and media could be improved.

 

Biosketch

Ionica Smeets is professor of Science Communication at Leiden University since 2015. Her research focuses on bridging the gap between experts and the general public. Her work is very interdisciplinary with collaborations ranging from journalism scholars and psychologists to geoscientists and general practitioners. One of her particular interests is exaggerated health news in the media. Where does it come from and what are its effects? Before coming back to the university she worked as an independent journalist and she still writes popular-scientific columns and actively participates in the public debate about science. She wrote three popular-scientific books which are all bestsellers and a handbook on science communication that is used in several courses in The Netherlands.